Much of what we might learn can be found in books or collected in the classroom from more knowledgeable others. However, some lessons can only be learned through life experience, and experience often takes us far from home. When it comes to the development of new perspectives and the synthesis of old ideas, few academic experiences can compare with study abroad. Through engagement with other persons in other cultures and through direct experience with their thoughts, customs, costumes, foods, and ways of life, we are made able to reflect more meaningfully on our own ways: often we can best see where we are by learning where we aren’t.
The Honors students whose stories of study abroad are shared below understand this. Please take a moment to read these excerpts from their own reflections on their travels.
Elin Limburg, Senior, German and Literature.
On one Friday our German class sat in a small semicircle in Alexanderplatz and did an exercise in using our senses to observe our environment. For minutes at a time we would focus on either the smells, sounds, or sights that surrounded us. We were absorbing the essence of this historical square in Berlin, where so many authors, artists, and other innovators before us had stood and been inspired by their surroundings: the movement, the bustle, the energy.
Experience, or exploration if you will, alters one’s perception of a place which they may already know. One could sit by the fountain in Alexanderplatz every day and watch Berlin pulse and shift around them like a living organism, and all the while be changing internally as well. During my Study Abroad experience, Berlin became a real place to me. It expanded before me and filled my field of vision. But it is not yet a complete view, just a snapshot. With each day, each course, each conversation, it will change. The beauty of the city is that each moment it can be known anew; when it is destroyed it can be reborn. It can revolve like a wheel, ever repeating itself while still moving forward.
In front of the Reichstagsgebäude in Berlin. With permission of Elin Limburg.
Morgan Fuller, Sophomore, Drama and Mass Communication
The most overwhelming sense of reflection and connection to history hit me while visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just outside of Berlin. Many of its original buildings may be gone, but what is left evokes much thought. I particularly noticed the camp’s proximity to the town, being only a few hundred feet away from a residential area. I thought about how people who lived so close to these camps asserted that they had no idea what was going on behind its walls, and I wondered if any of my German family had lived near one of these camps. Had they been aware of the atrocities that were taking place there?
Massive sites of great significance are not the only way in which Berlin ponders itself. Our class also concentrated on the small places of remembrance that whisper their messages in the ears of those who stop to listen. Such a memorial is embodied by the city’s many stumbling stones, or Stolpersteine. I frequently caught sight of the glimmering, golden cobblestones slightly ahead of me in the sidewalk. The stones are placed in front of former homes and contain the names and fates of those who lived there and faced persecution during the Nazi era. Today, these houses and apartments still house people. And as I stood in front of them, I considered the emotions these people feel when they walk by the golden stones that mark their houses.
Although Berlin is a city dotted with important memorials, it is also a city trying to move forward from a dark past. I have noticed this trait in my German family as well. Many of them recognize Germany’s past, but also emphasize its future.
The Chinese take pride in welcoming foreigners and I made sure to accept their hospitality. “Welcome to China!” one man excitedly said to me as I boarded a city bus. I often found myself having a casual conversation of hand jesters with curious citizens. Making purchases from the many friendly shop keeps I encountered was made easy after a fellow student taught me the Chinese hand signs for the numbers one through ten (look them up, especially six through ten, they’re cool).
Beijing, China. With permission of Mark Gotwald.
Victoria Nebolsin, Senior, French and Philosophy.
The study abroad experience is difficult to speak of without sounding like another privileged college student who keeps bringing up that one sunset in Barcelona that “you’ll just never understand.” However, despite all the clichés which originate from the return of study abroad students, it is an infallible truth that each and every person has a completely unique experience, one which changes you forever. The amount of lessons I gained from my experience are countless and it would be very easy for me to write pages upon pages on them. Nevertheless, I will stick to the three most important ones: 1. It’s important to take risks. 2. When you take risks, sometimes you will fall flat on your face and that’s okay. 3. Situations can turn out way worse than you could ever predict and that’s okay too. You’re much stronger than you think you are and you can handle it.
During my classes in France, I was surrounded by other students who had come to immigrate to France and stay. They knew that the only way to progress within the language was to participate and to participate a great amount, since what they had on the line wasn’t just grades but also their chance at immersion. In this sense, my classroom had a very trusting environment and I made about a million errors on the daily, along with some of my peers. The amount of humiliation I suffered speaking French initially felt like an unsurmountable crisis and I would recount each instance in my head before falling asleep. However, I finally reconciled with it when I realized that making an error isn’t the end of the world and in fact, anyone who tells you that the best way to learn is from other people’s mistakes is lying. When you make your own mistakes, it’s memorable and you have less of a chance to make repeat it. Every time I raised my hand or approached a new French individual was a risk and most of the time, I did indeed flat on my face. Though I don’t regret it a single time and I strongly believe that in this way, I learned much more French than the students who stuck to their American friends.
With permission of Victoria Nebolsin.